Why Artists Must Stay Out of the Commodity Business

An art business can become too much like a commidity business
The worst thing an art business can do is be just like everyone else. And the worst reason your customer can have for buying your product is that it’s the cheapest. Live by cheapest price, die by cheapest price.

Is your art business really a commodity business?  Is what you are packaging and selling just like ten-thousand other online art stores?

The worst thing an art business can do is be just like everyone else. And the worst reason your customer can have for buying your product is that it’s the cheapest. Live by the cheapest price, die by the cheapest price.

There are many, many product categories that are commodity items. My definition of a commodity is something that can basically be bought and sold by the pound from a half dozen or more companies.

This is why I dislike the big art sites like Etsy and eBay.  They make you look like you are selling the same thing everyone else is selling. It's hard to set yourself apart on those sites.  I don't recommend to my clients that they sell their art there.

The Pathetic Life of the Art Business Lowest Bidder

Being a 'commodity' is the pits. The worst situation you can be in is to sell something that's readily available from dozens of other people.

It’s easy to think customers only want the cheapest price, but that’s only true if nobody gives them a reason to pay extra and get more. A good Internet example: America On Line has done a very admirable job of packaging their service such that it can’t be directly compared to other Internet Service Providers. Features like AOL Instant Messenger have proprietary features that other providers can’t duplicate. AOL has always made it very easy to install their software and they’ve distributed their CD’s to just about every living creature in North America. This is how they’ve maintained a price over $20 while many of their competitors went broke trying to do it for free.

What you sell should be re-packaged and re-invented to differentiate it from competitive products and make apples-to-apples comparisons difficult or impossible.

Case in point: Starbucks, AOL, and Microsoft are ALL in commodity markets but have managed to re-define the rules such that they are relatively immune from price competition.

And I can assure you that there are THOUSANDS of small businesses as well, who use the same shrewd tactics to sidestep the whole issue of 'commoditization.'

It's the same thinking process that AOL, Microsoft, McDonalds and Starbucks all use - seemingly invincible companies that dominate fiercely competitive commodity markets.

Let's, once again, take AOL as a brief example. In the early Internet days you could become an Internet Service Provider with a few thousand dollars of cash and some phone lines. Some ISP's even gave away their services for free. But AOL maintained a price of $23/month - just for dial-up.

Now the landscape has changed greatly for ISP's and AOL has had a harder time competing. However... the reasons for their initial success are still worth studying.

How did they do it? Because AOL was fundamentally different than all other ISP's. They have FORCED themselves to come up with unique ways of making themselves non-interchangeable with others. They have AOL instant messenger, all kinds of online communities, and proprietary software. And once you're on AOL, it's hard to get off.

You can lift ideas right out of AOL and Microsoft and cleverly apply them to your business, so that apples-to-apples comparisons to your competitors are difficult or impossible.

Make Your Online Art Business Different

When you are an artist running a small art business - then you MUST do this. *It's not an option.* When you do, it makes everything you do vastly easier and more effective.

That's the main focus in my Smart Art Marketing newsletter.  I have a very specific terminology and strategy for re-inventing your business and making it clearly stand out from your rivals.

This Post Has 6 Comments

  1. susandrawbaugh

    This was a fantastic article!! …. and, being that I’m in the process of putting up a store with some of my wall art on Etsy, it was an eye opener! Your idea of making our art stand out by being DIFFERENT – hit home! There are particular ways I’ve thought of doing that, but hadn’t thought it through… until now. I have a website that sells products that I’ve come up with, along with my paintings and illustrations, and pricing and marketing is a huge issue for me right now! …. how to drive people to my site, and how to price my art!
    Thank you, once again for this!

    1. Gary Bolyer Fine Art

      Hi Susan,
      It’s always good to hear from you. Glad to hear that you’re busy with putting up your store. I know it’s a lot of work. Keep us posted on how it’s going with you and your store. Thanks for commenting.

  2. Jim Waller

    Hi Gary,

    I appreciate your points about not becoming a commodity. As an artist, one must differentiate their work or perish. I thought your choice of using AOL as an example was interesting.

    Part of their problem was taking it a little too far. They made it hard to remove their software so much so that it became a point of frustration. Then they made it difficult to just surf the web by forcing their subscribers to go through their interface. It was slower and had problems displaying some pages, so people got annoyed with it, too. When there were other options that were less expensive and quicker and easier to use, people switched to other providers.

    What does that tell us? In addition to differentiation, we also have to be adaptable to new situations. What works today may not work tomorrow, and what works tomorrow may not work today.

    At one time, the only way to sell artwork was through galleries, but thanks to the internet, there are other options that not only offer alternatives to artists, but offer people who might not have had exposure to art in the gallery system a chance to buy art.

    Granted the less refined clientele can be more problematic at times, but that comes with the territory. As you’ve mentioned elsewhere, you can always “fire” your clients if they are too problematic. At least we artists have more exposure than through the traditional gallery system. The trick as you’ve pointed out is to not become a commodity.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this. I appreciate your articles and have learned a few things from you.

    Kind Regards,


    1. Gary Bolyer Fine Art

      Hi Jim,
      Thanks for your comments here. I agree with you that we have to be constantly adapting. The Internet seems to be changing constantly. Like you said, what works today, doesn’t work tomorrow. You have to keep learning to stay up with the changes. Very good points. Thanks again for writing and I look forward to hearing more from you.

  3. Grand Ciel Branding & Design

    This hit a cord. I am in the business of branding and design, but I also happen to be a SOHO (sole operator/home office). There are a lot of creatives like me out there competing, so it’s vital to have a value proposition, not to mention strong working relationships with clients. It also means sticking to your rates. As an artist, this is an important reminder, because I do want to develop some strategic ways to market my own art work. It won’t be on Esty or e-Bay, that’s for sure!

    By the way, who uses AOL these days? I thought they died a long time ago.

    1. Gary Bolyer Fine Art

      Hi Kristin,
      Thanks for writing. I’m glad to hear you won’t be selling your art on Esty or eBay. I think it’s a big mistake a lot of artists are making. Hope to hear from you again soon.

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